BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – The Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs are more than a race to glory – they’re an exercise in cruelty.


Season after season, the postseason reminds us that a full year of teambuilding, 10 months of training sessions and seven months of grinding out regular season results mean nothing compared to a weird bounce, narrow offside call or a plain old off-night in the playoffs.


The New York Red Bulls, who had the East’s best regular season record in 2013, 2015 and 2016 and didn’t make one MLS Cup in that stretch, know the harsh realities of the postseason all too well.


The Chicago Fire just learned a little something about them.


The Fire’s excellent 2017 unraveled in four terrible minutes at Toyota Park on Wednesday night, as Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan scored in the seventh and 11th minutes to get the Red Bulls going in what became a 4-0 Knockout Round win in Bridgeview. For New York, it was a night of mild catharsis after years of playoff heartbreak. For Chicago, it was the rudest possible awakening after a dream of a season.


“It’s a shame that we couldn’t at least give our fans something to be proud of, a result where we kept the game close, we scored a couple goals, but it wasn’t meant to be,” said Fire captain and former Red Bull midfielder Dax McCarty. “It’s a really big bummer, big bummer the way that we ended the season, but I think a lot of our players should be proud of the way they played this year. A lot of the guys took a big step forward, but we just weren’t quite ready to make a real, realistic push at a championship. That showed in our performance tonight.”


The Fire had one of the bigger turnarounds in recent MLS history in 2017, finishing with the league’s third-best regular season record after ending 2015 and 2016 in dead-last. Offseason signing Nemanja Nikolic won the MLS Golden Boot; McCarty, acquired from New York in a shocking January trade, brought bite to the midfield and locker room; Bastian Schweinsteiger added several touches of class.


But critical injuries to their midfield toward the end of the year, an unsettled goalkeeping situation of their own making and a lack of depth carried over from their days at the bottom of the league hurt the Fire down the stretch. On Wednesday, those three flaws became fatal.


The goalkeeping issues struck on New York’s opener. Matt Lampson, a career backup who began the year as the No. 2 before stepping into the starting role following an injury to Jorge Bava, could’ve done more on Wright-Phillips’ early tally. Center backs Joao Meira and Johan Kappelhof deserve plenty of blame for not stepping high enough to pull BWP offside and failing to track his run, but Lampson was slow off his line and couldn’t take the ball off the Englishman, clearing the way for an awkward finish.


The Fire’s injury issues were in play on the Red Bulls’ second. Schweinsteiger was unable to start on Wednesday due to a calf strain that’s kept him out for the better part of the last two months. That meant Juninho, himself not looking quite right after only recently recovering from a knee injury, was paired with McCarty at defensive midfield. The Brazilian, who had a largely disappointing season and may not be back in Chicago following the expiration of his loan from Tijuana at the end of the year, inexplicably lost Kljestan in the six-yard box, letting the dangerous attacker slip behind him for an easy tap-in of Tyler Adams’ cross. It’s hard to imagine a healthy Schweinsteiger making that mistake.


Lack of health and lack of depth were also factors in the Fire’s mostly toothless attacking display. Michael de Leeuw, perhaps the key to Chicago’s puzzle this season, went down with a torn ACL in mid-September. The Dutchman was critical for his ability to link Chicago’s defensive midfielders, wingers and striker. With no readymade replacement on hand, their attack suffered. Talented winger David Accam also didn’t look quite right; he’ll have hip surgery in the offseason to deal with a knock of his own.


Now the Fire must figure out what’s next. As important as last offseason was in turning the club around, this winter will be even more crucial if they want to remain on an upward trajectory. Staying on the right path won’t be easy. Schweinsteiger is out of contract, Juninho may be out the door and there’s been plenty of chatter about Accam potentially heading to Europe.


Even if Schweinsteiger and Accam stay, Chicago need to add a pure playmaker, likely of the Designated Player variety. A decent striker to backup Nikolic is needed, and a new goalkeeper could potentially be on the way. Upgrading the depth at center back and adding another winger wouldn’t hurt, either.  


The good news is that Chicago have no illusions about their problems. Schweinsteiger and head coach Veljko Paunovic joined McCarty on Wednesday in saying that this Fire team wasn’t quite ready to make a title run. They know they need more seasoning, and they know they need some additions. They just need to take a few steps forward.


“You need to give the team a little bit of time, I think. With the great success, great achievement [in] what we did this season, I think we need to add maybe one or another piece,” said Schweinsteiger. “If you have 10 steps [to winning a championship], I think we took seven. Eight, nine and ten, that’s the hardest steps, but if you do this, eight, nine and ten, you can win titles.”